University leaders fear rankings reinforce inequities
That much is evident from the Hamburg Declaration, a statement issued at the conclusion of the fifth biennial Global University Leaders Council Hamburg held in Germany from 14-16 June at the invitation of the German Rectors’ Conference, the Körber Foundation and the University of Hamburg.
More than 30 university leaders gathered in the German city to discuss how higher education institutions should manage the key processes of competition and collaboration for the benefit of society, science and future generations.
Calling for the production of evidence-based knowledge on the impact of competition and collaboration among and within universities, the participants noted that their discussions were informed by a major academic study commissioned by the Körber Foundation and conducted at the University of Oslo in Norway by Peter Maassen, Jens Jungblut, Bjørn Stensaker, Rachel Griffith and Ariana Rosso.
The study considered competition and collaboration at 27 universities in 15 countries – eight from Europe, six from Asia, four each from Africa and North America, three from Latin America and two from Australia. University World News reported on the study in May.
The Hamburg Declaration notes that competition and collaboration have always been part of academia, and although they seem opposites of each other in some respects, the processes typically exist in a complementary relationship. However, recent developments threaten to upset the balance.
Competition more intense
“Global challenges such as the pandemic and the climate crisis have led to new forms of cooperation in science worldwide. At the same time, competition has become more intense and complex: Universities around the world are competing for talent, funds and prestige,” the declaration reads.
Among the university leaders participating were professors Simone Buitendijk of the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, Sandra Almeida of the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil, Jonathan Alger of James Madison University in the United States, Nana Amfo of the University of Ghana, Tshilidzi Marwala of the United Nations University in Japan and Tyrone Pretorius of the University of the Western Cape in South Africa.
Academic freedom threatened
In the declaration, they voiced their concern that academic freedom is currently under serious threat in many countries around the world and they resolved that higher education institutions “should stand together to safeguard and defend academic freedom against unwarranted internal and external infringements”.
They said that universities must “retain institutional autonomy in the face of external pressure on them to conform”, arguing that coherent policies by governments and their agencies are key to competition being used more responsibly and to academic collaborations becoming more resilient, sustainable and inclusive.
Academic freedom came up in the discussions because participating in what has become a global competition between universities for status involves particular risks, Peter Maassen, one of the authors of the research study informing the declaration, had warned earlier.
“Decisions to push institutions in a certain direction can amount to a loss of autonomy and even academic freedom,” he said.
At the meeting in Hamburg, participants agreed that “the changed geopolitical situation, the threat to academic freedom and increasing scepticism about science in many countries around the world are posing a particular challenge to universities”.
‘Bulwarks against anti-intellectualism’
In the declaration, they said that to counter this, universities should promote democratic values to serve as “exemplars of democracy to society”. They should “remain beacons of the search for truth and bulwarks against misinformation, disinformation and anti-intellectualism”.
In addition, they said, universities should promote and communicate their engagement with society and their relationships with their communities more clearly as a means of building kinship and enhancing trust and access.
“Universities should use collaboration strategically to engage with society more effectively”, and it is the responsibility of university leaders to “be proactive in protecting institutional values and standards when strategically navigating competition and collaboration”.
Other measures of performance
Universities should also “actively promote the reconfiguration of the measurement of institutional performance with key performance components, such as the quality of research, teaching and community service, economic and social impact, sustainability and green transition”, the Hamburg Declaration said.
The discussants resolved that universities should pursue strategic institutional partnerships based on long-term commitment and trust, not only between institutions of similar stature and mission, but also between complementary institutions and with non-university actors.
They said universities should be visible in their communities: “They should develop and use the power of their collective voice to ensure that their message is effectively communicated in all segments of society.”
In the study that informed the Hamburg discussions, the authors point out that instead of presenting their place in rankings, universities could share their achievements in sustainability collaborations. This would work better because the commitment to sustainability potentially allows for a more effective way of communicating university achievements, they say.
Partnerships and collaboration
The Hamburg Declaration argues that to ensure resilient and sustainable international collaboration and avoid bilateral dependencies in a multipolar world, universities should make more efforts to diversify their partnerships and build multilateral networks.
The leaders who compiled it feel that, in particular, “mutually beneficial partnerships between institutions in the Global North and Global South on an equitable footing” are key to addressing global challenges.
“To tackle today’s societal challenges, universities should promote and support cross-disciplinary collaboration in research and teaching, in university governance and organisation, as well as in the internal allocation of funds and career policies,” they say.
The concerns about rankings expressed by university leaders gathering in Hamburg coincides with increasing ‘rankings scepticism’ in a number of countries, as described by John Douglass of the University of California, Berkeley.
A growing number of universities refuse to provide rankings agencies with data. Earlier in June, Columbia University issued a statement indicating that it would not submit data to US News & World Report for its undergraduate rankings this year, claiming that it had concluded that the “rankings do not accurately capture the student experience or the priorities of the institution”.
In April Rhodes University in South Africa came out strongly to reaffirm its decision not to participate in “scientifically dubious and anti-transformation international university ranking systems”.
In 2022 Yale Law School had also pulled out of the US News & World Report rankings, described by Dean Heather Gerken as “profoundly flawed”.
Maassen said earlier that the emphasis is moving to multilateral collaboration instead of bilateral cooperation, and to equitable partnerships in an unequal world instead of projects funded through development aid.
“University leaders should encourage governments and their agencies to adjust their policy instruments accordingly. Given that competitive schemes often prioritise science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines and the life sciences, the humanities and social sciences with their essential and historical appreciation of human values and creativity should be especially promoted,” the Hamburg Declaration reads.